Back-of-the-napkin budgeting ends April 11

By Sheila Block and Randy Robinson

During last year’s election campaign, Ontario voters didn’t get many details about Doug Ford’s plans for the province. The PC leader said he would cut taxes. He said he’d cut public spending by four per cent. He said he’d let breweries sell beer for a buck.

He said a few more things, too, but not many. When Ford scrapped his predecessor’s detailed and costed 78-page platform, what we got instead would have fit on the back of a Tim Hortons napkin.

That back-of-the-napkin budgeting ends on Budget Day. On April 11, we’ll finally get to see what four years of Ford add up to.

Some of it we know, at least partially. We know the Ford government plans to increase school class sizes and make e-learning mandatory in high school. We know they’re cutting budgets for fixing schools and social housing. We know they’re cutting real (after inflation) incomes for those on social assistance. We know they’re figuring out how to put the squeeze on public sector wages. We know they’ve already axed the expert panel to end violence against women, cut the Indigenous Culture Fund by more than 40 per cent, slashed the Anti-Racism Directorate, and so on. All the cuts announced so far are too numerous to mention here.

We also know that the Ford government is losing large amounts of revenue by creating new tax credits, cutting taxes paid by high income earners and corporations, and eliminating the cap-and-trade system. The Financial Accountability Office of Ontario pegs those lost revenues at well over $3 billion a year, on average, over four years.

But here’s what we don’t know:

  • We don’t know how fast Finance Minister Vic Fedeli plans to reduce the provincial deficit, which he says was $13.5 billion in 2018-19.
  • We don’t know the full impact of many of the program cuts already announced – whether the dollar figures are annual numbers or spread out over a number of years.
  • We don’t know what new program cuts are coming.
  • We don’t know much about new spending: news reports talk of a new child care tax credit and free dental care for low-income seniors, but details are sketchy. And we don’t know where the money to pay for new initiatives will come from.
  • We don’t know what will happen to the biggest budget item: health care. The health budget, at $62 billion a year, currently accounts for 41 per cent of total program spending. We know that health care as a whole is in for a major restructuring, but we don’t know at what cost. And we don’t know to what degree that restructuring will mean privatization of Ontarians’ cherished public system.
  • We don’t know if Minister Fideli will announce new tax cuts, which would increase pressure on program spending.

We do know that program spending would have to rise by 3.5 per cent a year, overall, just to keep public services at recent levels (It’s pretty safe to say that won’t happen).

We also know Ontario’s deficit and debt situation – which the government uses to justify deep cuts to spending – isn’t nearly as dire as we’ve been told. Even the Ontario Chamber of Commerce has called on the government not to be taken in by “the siren song of austerity.”

We also know that there must be a lot in this budget that Premier Ford would rather keep off the front pages: never in recent memory has an Ontario budget been accompanied by such a barrage of eye-catching announcements. From legal tailgate parties to new license plate slogans to carbon-tax stickers on gas pumps, the government seems determined to talk about anything but the major revenue and spending decisions that go with crafting a $150-billion budget.

Unfortunately for the Premier, April 11 is the day he will have to provide details. This year’s budget won’t fit on a napkin.


Sheila Block is a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Ontario (CCPA-On) office. Randy Robinson is Director of CCPA-On.

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